By Don Steinberg
"The Queen's Gambit," Netflix's fictional drama about a female
chess prodigy, has pulled off an unlikely gambit of its own: It's
prompted one of the biggest surges in the popularity of chess among
Americans since the days of Bobby Fischer's dominance in the
The show has become Netflix's most widely viewed scripted
limited series, with 62 million households tuning in during the
first 28 days after its Oct. 23 debut, the streaming company said.
(Netflix now counts two minutes of watching as a view.) The impact
is clear: Google search queries for chess doubled from October to
November. Participation in online chess sites is soaring and it is
getting harder to buy some chess sets.
"We're setting a new record, for most new members in a single
day, almost every day of November," said Rick Barton, director of
business development at Chess.com, a site for chess education and
online play. That influx of more than 100,000 members daily is
mostly beginners, Mr. Barton said. The newcomers have been mostly
in the 18-to-24 demographic (as high as 60%), and slightly more
female than usual, at 25% of new members compared with 22% among
the site's base of 46 million members. During the spring, pandemic
lockdowns gave a bump to chess sites, he said. "The Queen's Gambit"
built on that to create a pop-culture sensation.
Jeff Myers, owner of online retailer thechessstore.com, said his
sales this month are triple November's last year. Demand is running
up against a Covid-related supply slowdown, he said, and his
inventory is dwindling. "We source our best quality Staunton wood
chess pieces from India, and India has really been locked down.
They haven't been able to harvest trees for the sets, and carving
factories for the pieces have been closed," Mr. Myers said. His
domestic supply of chess boards also has been disrupted: "The
boards I have coming from New York won't last until Christmas at
the rate we are selling."
Netflix's seven-episode series is based on a 1983 novel by
Walter Tevis. Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is a
red-headed Kentucky orphan in the 1960s who sees chessboard
patterns in her head at age 8. The world opens to Beth as she
advances from local curiosity to world champion, all while
struggling with substance abuse.
The show feels like a cousin of Amazon's " The Marvelous Mrs.
Maisel," sharing its swanky mid-century set designs and fashions,
international travel and a strong-willed protagonist in a
male-dominated field. Its impact, though, has been more like that
of " Stranger Things," another Netflix series that is credited with
spurring a revival of the game Dungeons & Dragons.
What is the secret for injecting chess into the mainstream?
"We had a running joke when we were making it, that we were
putting the sexy back in chess," said Bill Horberg, the executive
producer of the series. "We even had T-shirts printed up for the
crew that said, 'Sex, drugs and rook and roll.' "
The chess prodigy "is the perfect character for our time," said
Bruce Pandolfini, a chess expert who consulted on the novel and the
Netflix series. "Beth is a tremendous survivor."
Imad Khachan, owner of the Chess Forum in New York City's
Greenwich Village, realized early this month that the show had
become a phenomenon. Working in the store after midnight, "I heard
the voice of a young woman as she walked by," Mr. Khachan recalled.
"She said 'Queen's Gambit!' Usually passersby just yell 'Chess!'
Or, if we are open, invariably someone walks in to ask 'Can I play
Bobby Fischer?' "
Getting on the Board
Want to join the chess craze? Here are resources:
Chess.com has created a Beth Harmon chess bot that beginners and
experts can play against. Novices can take on Beth at age 8;
experts can challenge versions of Beth up to grandmaster level.
Lichess.org, which recently reached 100,000 simultaneous players
online, is a free site where one can take on global opponents at
the same level of expertise. It offers puzzles for mastering
tactics and variants like Antichess and Crazyhouse.
Stores like New York's Chess Forum are open and also offer
online shopping. Your Move Chess and Games, of North Massapequa,
N.Y., bills itself as America's largest chess store. The U.S. Chess
Federation, the World Chess Hall of Fame's Q Boutique, and Thechess
store.com offer entry-level and luxury equipment. Shoppers can find
handcrafted sets on Etsy and vintage ones on eBay. And Beth Harmon
T-shirts are for sale all over the web.
WATCH and LEARN
The chess masters who share expertise on YouTube and Twitch can
be entertaining and educational, and they have created a video
subgenre analyzing matches played in "The Queen's Gambit," which
are based on real ones. Antonio Radic, known online as agadmator,
attracted 2.2 million views for his analysis of the final episode's
Beth Harmon-Vasily Borgov championship match, based on a 1993 one
between Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk and American Patrick Wolff.
Other video teachers worth checking out include soft-spoken
International Master Eric Rosen, the trash-talking grandmasters at
Chess Brah, and sisters Alexandra and Andrea Botez, who beat up on
the boys as much as Beth Harmon does.
The World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis physically and
virtually offers exhibits, including one on the real pioneering
women of chess. The Hall plans to include Beth Harmon in a coming
exhibit on chess prodigies.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 25, 2020 12:05 ET (17:05 GMT)
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